My first image entering
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was that of old-style, Southern, luxury. Pink and purple hued skies. Bright flowery curtains and ornate rugs. A gilded chandelier set above a white satiny sofa. Soft southern music playing in the background. All you want to do is jump up on the stage and be part of the scenery, perhaps as a guest at this 1956 mansion. Immediately, the play is in motion---there is a middle-aged man on crutches resting on a bench on the front porch habitually taking a swig from his glass as a butler comes in and out waiting on him---all occurring as audience members take their seats. Nothing seems distraught, all seems peaceful. Yet this opening provides a false sense of stability---the storm that soon brews as each family member enters the picture is a far cry from the deceptive comfort pervading at the start of the play.
Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a classic story about a troubled family in the 1950s that dapples with homosexuality, depression, alcoholism, love, and patriarchy (practically to the point of misogyny). Director Michael Menendian brings this iconic story to life through thoughtful casting and creative stage transitions. The play begins as soon as the doors open so that the audience is immediately engaged and spectator to the story. Each one of the three acts ends rather abruptly but then begins again after intermission with a brief rewind back in time. This brief repeat of the scene helps the story click better in the minds of the audience and helps each act comfortably achieve moments of extreme tension or catharsis by creating the appropriate building foundations for moments of change.
The family comes together for the birthday of Big Daddy, played by Jon Steinhagen, at a time when Big Daddy’s health is in serious jeopardy. The family members greedily try to determine who will take over the estate and gain hold of Big Daddy’s assets. Amidst this backdrop, our attention moves between depressed and alcoholic Brick ( Jason Huysman), his attractive and desperate wife Maggie ( Liz Fletcher), Big Mama ( Joann Montemurro) and her worried antics to keep Big Daddy healthy and happy, and Gooper ( Greg Caldwell) and Mae ( Eleanor Katz), the married couple who can’t seem to stop popping out kids! The family gathering is filled with tension, humor, jealousy, and chaos. It reminded me that I am not the only one coming from a crazy family, and that the craziness of my own family pales in comparison to the friction of the Pollitt family!
Liz Fletcher, who plays the attractive, sultry, and desperately-in-need-of-love wife of Brick, plays the part of Maggie nearly flawlessly. Her thick Southern accent and extreme sexuality all help her achieve the perfect image of a young, childless, middle-upper-class Southern housewife. She tries to take power in the household and bring Brick back to a sense of stability but she fails in the end due to the patriarchcial nature of the household and the oftentimes violent power Brick has over her. Mae ( Eleanor Katz), Maggie’s sister-in-law, also nails the 1950s housewife---pregnant with her 6th or possibly 7th child, Mae is a fertile woman who is treated as so from the men in her life, husband Gooper and harsh father, Big Daddy.
The catfights between sisters-in-law Maggie and Mae, whom Maggie funnily calls “sister-woman”, add much-needed humor to the morose form the play takes.
Watching these women and their interactions with the men in their lives made me thankful for the way women are treated today and thankful for the way society has progressed in its treatment of women . I cringed watching the lack of power these women possessed and the way the men treated them as puppets immune to any physical or emotional harm.
Big Daddy’s treatment of loving and cheerful Big Mama ( Joann Montemurro) was also quite disturbing, especially amidst all the love Big Mama showers on Big Daddy. Big Daddy treats her as an untamed ugly animal and often verbally expresses his desire instead for sexy Maggie, his daughter-in-law. Watching this occur continued to exasperate the disgusting tingle I felt going through my skin, and deepened my appreciation for not being a woman living in this time period and for not being a part of this particular household. The issue of homosexuality brought about by Brick is another pivotal issue the play and its characters try to grapple with.
All three of the women were committed to their characters and brought needed humor to the show. Big Mama was especially quite funny in her loud and rather annoying voice, but garners pity from her inability to fully internalize the oppression she faces in the household.
Jason Huysman plays the part of Brick quite well, though at times could have done more with his character. Jon Steinhagen seemed to “play” the role of Big Daddy rather than truly become Big Daddy, making some of his behavior seem more contrived and pushed than truly real.
Overall, the play was hugely successful. While often dark at times, director Michael Menendian is able to balance out this darkness with sex appeal and humor. A well-written Tennessee Williams script combined with a well-conceived, well-cast show makes this a definite must-see!
6157 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60660-2423
Photos by Dean LaPrairie
Published on Dec 31, 1969